1-7 December 2004
Installment #249---Visitor #

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This week at Hilton Pond Center we depart from our usual photo essay about natural history happenings in the Carolina Piedmont. Rather than writing about some native bird or tree, we take time to observe the passing of Paco, who--of Central American ancestry--had been for the past 17 years our instructional partner during countless visits to classrooms around the country. Paco put up with a lot as we traveled school to school and state to state, never whining about needing a bathroom break or wanting a Happy Meal from McDonald's. Paco was exceptionally even-tempered despite her size and even though she had remarkable expertise at enchanting young and old alike, she worked for no monetary salary. And, we're proud to say, she didn't seem to mind being toted from one gig to the next in a pillowcase. You see, Paco was a Boa Constrictor--and a very good one at that. She died this week.

Paco came to us back in 1988 when we helped start the South Carolina Governor School for Science and Mathematics in Hartsville--more about that later--where she graced our biology classroom and served as the quintessential example when we studied reptilian behavior. Prior to then she had resided in the Rock Hill science classroom of close friend Fred Nims, an instructor at Westminster-Catawba School and former student from our teaching days at Fort Mill High. It was Fred, we believe, who named the snake "Paco"--derived from "Rat Apocalypse." Fred had gotten Paco in about 1986 from one of his own students who, in turn, had acquired the U.S.-born snake several years earlier from a cousin in Ohio. Thus, counting backwards, we estimate that Paco was at least 20 years old at the time of her passing--pretty good for a species that seldom lives for three decades.

When Fred first received Paco she was just a puppy--only a couple of feet long; a steady diet of small mammals helped her bulk up and lengthen pretty rapidly. By the time we took her to the Governor's School she was about seven feet long and six inches in diameter. As often happens with snakes, Paco's growth rate slowed considerably as she got older, and in the past ten years or so she "only" gained 27" in length. She was a rock-solid mass of bone and muscle, however, and once tipped the scales at 35 pounds--quite a load when handling her in front of a school library filled with a hundred or so wide-eyed first-graders.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

One of Paco's greatest attributes was her mild temperament. Boa Constructors are typically non-aggressive--that's why hoochie-koochie dancers use this species instead of less predictable pythons or Anacondas--but Paco never struck at anybody even after six back-to-back one-hour periods of classroom presentations. (After some long days, she tended to get a little limp--more like spaghetti than a Boa Constrictor--and we were pretty worn out, too.) She did have the nerve-wracking habit of striking the window of her cage if we walked by when she was hungry--the thud of nose against Plexiglas was always startling--but once in the hand she was guaranteed not to bite. She could put on a hard squeeze, of course--a natural reaction that kept her from falling while being handled--and many times we had to start at her weaker end to untwine her from us or a student. (We sometimes wondered if she took diabolical delight from repeatedly sticking her tail up our pants leg in front of giggling elementary school kids.)

Paco had an amazing appetite. It's often the case that big snakes do not eat well in captivity, but with Paco that was never a problem, and--even more unusual--we never had to sacrifice live animals to satisfy her hunger. Instead we simply kept a plastic bag in the back of our van and stopped on our travels to collect any fresh, road-killed squirrels we came across. Take home the squirrel, dangle it by its bushy tail through the top door of the cage, and Paco would lunge toward the lifeless rodent, grab it with most of her 100-plus sharply decurved teeth, draw it back into the cage in a flash, and wrap it tightly with a few coils of her sinuous serpentine body. Never wanting to risk the loss of a potential meal, Paco tightened around her prey as if it were alive and wouldn't let go with tooth or coil until she sensed the squirrel wasn't breathing. Then she released her hold, sniffed around with her tongue until she found the squirrel's anterior, crawled over the snout with her open jaws, and used peristaltic waves to move the entire foot-long rodent down her throat and into her stomach. (If the roadkill patrol had a productive excursion, Paco could easily ingest three or four squirrels at one sitting. Burp!)

We observed this "strike-kill-swallow" scenario hundreds of times through the years, but it never lost its fascination for us or our students. Paco wasn't finicky. She also took other kinds of roadkills, including Eastern Chipmunks, Cotton Rats, half-grown Eastern Cottontail rabbits--and even songbirds that died from window strikes. Her most amazing gustatorial feat came one spring when--no matter how many miles we drove--we couldn't seem to find any fresh food items along the roadside. In desperation we went to the local Bi-Lo grocery store and bought two dozen chicken legs, brought the package home, unwrapped the meat, and dangled one of the legs through the top door of the cage. Paco rose up carefully and inquisitively, extended her long body for almost two feet, and flicked her tongue to smell this new odor that definitely was not eau d'squirrel. After a few minutes, she opened her mouth, gently grabbed the chicken leg, and without lowering her body to the cage bottom simply let the drumstick slide down her throat like a sailor eating raw oysters. We had no idea she would take the chicken legs in the first place--does roadkill squirrel taste like chicken?--so we were amazed she ate all 24 drumsticks one by one over a two-hour period. Shortly after that day of chicken delight, the roadkill drought reversed itself, and we never again had to resort to store-bought drumsticks. In retrospect, that's probably good, because growth hormones and other additives used by some poultry growers might not be the best thing for a Boa Constrictor.

Paco's eating habits were indeed interesting, but kids were also fascinated by her near-monthly ritual of shedding her skin. Occasionally she would go through the process during a classroom presentation, allowing us to leave teacher and students with a permanent memento of Paco's visit. Students were especially intrigued that Paco sloughed off her entire exterior, even the special transparent scale (above left) that covered each eye.

Paco's most lasting legacy will be that she was handled personally by upwards of 3,500 people, all of whom came to a better understanding of wild animals in general and serpents in particular. At every session--whether for a South Carolina middle school or the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia--we always started our talk with the question: "How many of you THINK you're afraid of snakes." Note that we didn't ask "How many of you ARE afraid of snakes," because no one is born with serpentophobia. You have to be TAUGHT to think you're afraid of snakes, and if that fear can be taught, it can be un-taught--and that was Paco's primary job. Once someone has really touched a Boa Constrictor, felt its dry (not slimy!) skin, sensed the snake's incredible grace and strength, and even balanced its 30-plus pounds on one's shoulders--that imaginary fear of snakes begins to slip away, replaced with an open-mindedness that is the mark of a scholar seeking to overcome myth with truth.

Son Garry, who was born only a few years before we acquired Paco, grew up with this huge serpent crawling on the floor beside him, and never once did a glint of fear enter the boy's eyes. After someone once screamed unexpectedly at the sight of Paco, five-year-old Garry asked: "Why would anyone be afraid of snakes? I like 'em." This same Garry, wise beyond his years, also RESPECTED snakes and had sense enough to alert us instead of picking up a Northern Copperhead when it wandered through our Hilton Pond backyard.

Despite her usual good appetite, over the past 14 months or so Paco had gotten less and less inclined to eat, and eventually she ignored even the fattest, freshest, most scrumptious roadkill squirrel. Rather than force-feeding her, we kept fresh water in her heated cage, supplied her with vitamins, and took her out for a slither a few times a week--most recently over Thanksgiving weekend, when we measured her at 9' 3". Eventually, we suppose, old age overtook her, and when we opened the cage on 1 December to change her water, we saw Paco had breathed her last.

So now, for the first time in 17 years, the luxurious custom-made snake cage at Hilton Pond Center is empty. We never thought of Paco as a pet but as a terrific teaching tool. She helped us instruct thousands of people in a hundred cities in a dozen different states about snakes and science and even math and language arts--hence our presentation titles of "Two and a Half Meters of Math and Science" or "Twisting Our Way through English (or Social Studies)." Yes, we could employ Paco to help kids learn about nearly any school subject--but most importantly we used her to teach people about themselves and how to be open-minded and overcome fears. It was a good run of almost two decades, and we thank Paco for subsisting on squirrels, traveling in a pillowcase, and never, ever biting a student.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Thanks also to now-retired Dottie Gettys, consummate first grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary, York SC, for allowing us to visit her classroom for many years and for providing photos of her students and us with Paco

Photo by Jim Stratakos of Jennifer Marshall & Marty Heath © The Herald, Rock Hill SC

POSTSCRIPT: Perhaps Paco's most famous moment came when she made the front page of The State newspaper in Columbia SC after an Easter vacation escapade at the Governor's School. We think you'll enjoy reading a reprint of that article at School Snake Takes Unusual Spring Break.

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NOTE: Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, as well as some other interesting nature notes.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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Oct 15 to Mar 15
Please report
your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter


1-7 December 2004

American Goldfinch--9
Brown-headed Nuthatch--1
Purple Finch--1
Tufted Titmouse--1
Red-bellied Woodpecker--1

* = New species for 2004

5 species

68 species
1,933 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)

House Finch (1)
02/10/02--after 2nd year female

--More rain this week at Hilton Pond Center interfered considerably with trapping and banding birds.


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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.

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